Contemporary Indian Art: Revolt and Rupture
The Art of the age has to reflect the spirit of the age- Richard Bartholomew
Contemporary Art has been a representation of the political zeitgeist in its response to the spirit of changing times responding to the retold, relived, refractive histories. Not all artistic expressions are a result of a direct experience; rather they are often been an expression of borrowed pain. Susan Sontag underscores the persuasive argument by deliberating over the images of atrocities of war in her 2003 book-length essay, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. She critiques the ‘patronising reality’ and those who have not lived through things of atrocities and thus, for Sontag, one “can’t understand, can’t imagine”. A new generation of artists in India is quick to act in response to artists’ immediate genealogical backgrounds and lives that are directly affected by different forms of the social injustice. While confronting their immediate situations with certain political consciousness, the artists are alert in their artistic reflections that may open spaces for dialogue towards building awareness within the communities they are part of.
This essay is an attempt in developing a series of writings by interrogating contemporary artists who have been developing their practices through confrontations and blurring boundaries of being an artist and an activist from time to time. Here, I focus on three artists namely, Prabhakar Kamble, Ranjeeta Kumari and Amol Patil. The confrontations for these artists become an assertion of their voices and they bring in paradigm shift[i], to use Thomas Kuhn’s term. As Kuhn argues, the shift happens by challenging the norms of a given practice that had become constricting and thus vulnerable to challenge. Taking this further, as Partha Mitter has observed[ii], the new paradigm in its turn marginalizes practices that no longer conform to the new criteria. Such paradigm shifts create ruptures in the existing order of artistic practices by bringing in parallel as well as newer orders. The chosen artists in for this essay are subjected to the suffering of the generations and oppressive regimes of patriarchy, caste or resources. In this case, the artists are the subject of assertion and their art practice is the politics of the self. For them, the truth is not refracted, it is their own. The common thing in the select artists is the context of their immediate surrounding they exist in, their personal histories from which their art emerges. Their practice is a form of their revolt and it becomes the existential conditioning for them.
Influenced by their immediate surroundings and drawing from art movements like Gutai in post-war Japan, Arte Povera in the 1960s Europe and Fluxus founded by George Maciunas, the Black Panther, and revolutionary artists like John Cage and Namdeo Dhasal, the artists engage with the intersection of confrontation, identity and art. Their life and artistic expressions are not only limited to their personal lives and internal process, but it is a response to the public in its orientation. Identity-based expressions, as an inquiry within the areas of caste, class, gender, religion along with material and technological exploration, hold a crucial space for their artistic expressions. While addressing their orientations and concerns against the current generic artistic practices, they rebel as well as establish their position as the ‘neo’ generation with the existentialist angst within contemporary Indian art practices.
‘Neo’ contemporary artists as ‘Existentialists’
To trace politically conscious art movements in India, we need to understand the symbiotic relationship between politics and art, which emerged from collective histories of Indian society. India has a long history of political art beginning from pre-independence art movements such as the nationalist art movement of Bengal school in the early 20th century, the Calcutta Group responding to the humanitarian crisis of the famine in 1940s, the post-independence movements of Delhi Silpi Chakra in 1949, and the formation of Radical Painters and Sculptors’ group in 1987 that addressed the anti-caste and anti-feudal movements.
Importantly, the movements and the categories of art-practices emerge from one another, diffuse from one segment to another replacing earlier categories. Rather than being exclusive categories, they remain simultaneously evolving spaces. They may appear similar but not the same. Like diverse societies and cultures, they are distinguished and confronted by their differences. In this process, the academic naturalism of colonial time and oriental art were replaced by the language of modernism signifying the changes in the modernising world. Also, the artistic processes are taken over by the ‘contemporaries’ of our time who are politically conscious Existentialists. Needless to say, the process has influenced their work to question ‘what it means to exist’ that may resemble some of the ideas of post-war existentialism in Europe. Referring to western existentialist philosophy, the works of philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre had a shared belief that philosophical thinking begins with a human subject or condition bringing the focus on human autonomy. An individual is responsible for making himself, of lifting himself beyond the level of mere existence. ‘To exist’ is the conditioning and ‘to be’ is a choice for the betterment.
Location: Clark House Initiative
‘Clark House Initiative’[i] in Mumbai is a unique model established to build an autonomous curatorial space for an artist collective to advocate and encourage identity-based expressions. The space encourages non-authoritative and thus, an art practice that is sustainable. The Initiative enables membership that arises from basic beliefs of humanism and the idea of freedom towards opening dialogues for visual as well as performative narrations and expressions of revolt. Inspired by ideologies of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Karl Marx, and the voices stemming from the Initiative are not just linear narratives but they represent the suppressed marginalized social structures within and across nations. A careful reading of artists’ work enables me to group some of their works in the broad area of ‘Dalit Consciousness’ within the social and political scenario of India. The rationale behind categorizing them in the group is that they question the unfulfilled promise of the Constitution of India, bringing to the fore the politics of caste, raising questions about restricting freedom of speech, farmer, women and labour issues and the public lynching of the Dalits.
Understanding Dalit Consciousness
The Dalits have encountered generations of manipulations. The caste dynamic has deeply impacted the historical and social ways of societies and individuals in India. The subject of oppression resonates itself toward the oppression culminating from the colonial histories and racism in the global context. Though the caste system is a subject peculiar to and predominant only in India, the emergence of a discourse on Dalit consciousness within the contemporary Indian art is being observed only in the recent years. The artists working under the framework of Dalit consciousness share an acute awareness towards the defunct systems of society and the state. Sujata Gilda raises interesting questions in her 2017 published biography, ants among elephants as: “So what is the relation between religion and caste? Between caste and social status and wealth? Between wealth and caste?”[ii]. These questions hint at the deeper nexus of the existing capitalist economic structure and hegemonic practices of the caste system in India. A sharp set of explanation is also formulated by Kancha Ilaih Shepard[iii] in Post-Hindu India where he elaborates on caste systems as the pillars of the society and he articulates the Baniya – Bhramin or casteism and capitalism nexus effectively. Though it is not focus of this essay, the nauseating nexus of caste-based inequality and its fatal blend with hyper-capitalism is an apocalyptic equation that has to be probed. In this system, human welfare over the inheritance of discrimination and exploitation, are subjects of oppression.
In order to understand the Dalit consciousness, we need to look at the contribution of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution of India. His ideas, values and practices form the basis for Dalit ideology. His revolutionary work towards emancipating the Dalits and oppressed in India has shaped newer understanding in bringing positive change in the society. Dr Ambedkar questioned the hierarchical Hindu social order (Varnashram, Varna Vyavastha or Chaturvarna), based on the principles of graded inequality. For Ambedkar, the real democracy should remain anchored in social democracy. He saw social justice (unity, tolerance and equality among human beings) as the foundation for any just society and proposed that there must be a constant revolution of old values in a changing society. However, unfortunate haunting events of the Dalit lynching and different forms of exploitation strengthen the belief that we have not been able to achieve what Dr Ambedkar dreamt of: a just society founded on social democratic values. In the ‘progressive’ time of technology and science, social inequality in India is still steeped deep in the social order, affecting the different spheres of human life.
Against this background, it is obvious for Prabhakar Kamble, Ranjeeta Kumari and Amol Patil to respond to the graveness of social system through their practices.
Prabhakar Kamble creates a space from his own experiences as a Dalit. Through his work, Prabhakar desires, dares and deserves to make the statements that create discomfiture for the viewer. His performance critiques exploitation and violence against the Dalits and it is the complex commentary on the society. Often painting large portraits of Dr BR Ambedkar for the Dalit movements across Maharashtra, he engages in the propagation of Dalit Literature and the Ambedkarite movement. He says in one of his informal conversations, “The system never allows one to speak or even whisper on that issue due to its selective humanism and ruling-class aesthetics which is forced through the academics; denying the subaltern expression and aesthetics.” Prabhakar Kamble’s performative act of Human in Una is identified as a critical work reflecting on the recent political urgency. He confronts and dialogues through a sensitive subject, never attempted before, being the only one to do so. Keeping such work that reflects on the shuddering lynching trail of the Dalit atrocities and a grave political situation at the centre, Prabhakar makes the performance the most daring and critical in the face of the art in India!
In the Human in Una performance, Prabhakar Kamble, shocked by the incident of the Dalits being inhumanly assaulted by gourakshaks (cow–vigilantes) in Una (Gujarat) in 2016, builds a visual narrative in his response to the seamlessly running video recording of the assault across television channels. Prabhakar gives the unconventional treatment to the objects and material such as a hunter (chabuk) often used to train animals as well as black powder, symbolizing greed of power and dark isolation of the Dalits within the society. In the performance, Prabhakar carried sacks (Gathri) weighing down his slouched back symbolizing the burdens of caste and class system. The audience was asked to pick up any material used in the performance and engage with it. The act compelled them to surpass the rational boundaries of civility losing the fragment of the social consciousness while raising the animal within them that lynched the Una victims. The realization of inhuman sporadic episodes is a reflection of the lack of understanding of humanism. Through the chosen medium of the performance, Prabhakar explores the relationship between the performer and the audience. The body for him is the subject and the object to confront the pain and the physical limits of the body and the mind. The performance while echoing the atrocity reminds us of the brutal episode in Una. Prabhakar’s performance raises some crucial questions such as: What are the forces that give a common law-abiding community an authority to challenge the law? How do they justify a crime of such order as self-claimed justice?
Ideologies are used to organise hierarchy and are centralized through social institutions such as media, education and religion. They change with changing times, they create shifts and are capable of galvanising a path towards reforms, and they are often colour coded. They are modules of truth, tempered ideas that resonate within a section of a society, and are like seeds, that would take root with the right conditions. But, when a segment of society shows signs of insecurity towards a rising ideology, it appears to threaten them with its mere presence, not knowing that the mere act of erasure reaffirms the strength of it. This erasure, an attempt to deconstruct its origin, its foundational structure, and intentionally juxtapose it, is motivated with benefits. The obscured episode of the Dr Ambedkar statue which was vandalized in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, on April 7, 2018, is a rude pawn of the politics of colour. A day later the vandalized statue was replaced by a new one, painted in saffron, signifying the dominant ideology steeped in religious-political identity of India today. Blue, which is often the colour Dr Ambedkar is shown in also used on the Independent Labour Party Flag and the Mahar Flag. Eventually, blue has been set as the colour code for all Dalit based political interventions. For Prabhakar Kamble, the symbolic colour coded intervention becomes an axiomatic subject of politics of colour. His work, Disfiguration of Image, is a kinetic installation in its mechanical movement of repainting the sculpture of Dr Ambedkar. It attempts a repeated emphasis on the moment of juxtaposing of colour from the episode that took place in Unnao recently.
Aware and Alert
Encouraged by her father who was a pharmacist and a Marxist, Patna-based artist Ranjeeta Kumari studied at the Shiv Nadar University outside Delhi. She hails from a Dalit family and Dom community, also known as the Mahadalits. The Dom community takes responsibility for the cremation of dead bodies and manages cremation grounds set near a river across India. A Marxist and an Ambedkarite, Ranjeeta’s endeavour is to understand and research the life of workers (marginalized people) in a capitalist society. She, through her work, becomes the visual voice for the oppressed labour class. She points out, “In the age of technology and industrialisation, the labourer is a secondary citizen, unprivileged, oppressed and deprived of his/her basic rights.” Ranjeeta’s work questions while being observant and rooted in the current socio-political fabric of India. Instead of sounding rebellious, her work assures of being aware and alert on her context. While talking about her art practice, Sumesh Sharma, one of the founders of the Clark House Initiative and a curator observes, “She was mocked by her own relatives and family friends living in a settlement known as Domkhana (the untouchable quarter) for her wish to study. They felt her ambitions contained a kind of nihilism because, as someone born into a Dalit family, she was sure not to succeed.”
Marginalisation through labour has been continuing phenomenon in India. Every year many men and women travel to the overgrowing cities to satiate the ever-growing need for labour. Engaging with the migrant labourers, Ranjeeta in her installation work, Unseen City exchanged bindas – a turban-like mound of old cloth made to protect the head while carrying heavy loads – with labourers at a construction site outside New Delhi. She exchanged new bindas and collected the old ones that were worn and torn and arranged them in the form of towers to mimic the highrise buildings built by these labourers.
The preamble of the Constitution of India that speaks about justice, liberty and fraternity, inspired Ranjeeta to create a book installation, Farming of Fundamentals. The public statues of Dr Ambedkar carrying the Constitution in his hand, according to Ranjeeta, offers hope to the marginalised. Ranjeeta unravels the use of the book as a metaphor by saying, “When I read these words I deeply feel something growing within me…. like plants which have the right to grow. For me, this is a beautiful poem about the dream of a country which is dead in the current scenario and it does not exist on a ground level. I have planted the mustard seeds as words of the preamble. So I am seeing this book as alive and green.” She planted mustard seeds that symbolized revolutionary flights for the rights of people fought by the farmers and the marginalised. She eventually transformed this green living clay book into a broken terracotta sculpture.
About Toxicity and Discrimination
The preamble within the Constitution promises a just society, it was a promise of a better India! Freedom from the colonial rule towards a democratic nation was realized and yet the bondage of the societal structural suppressions exist in various forms. The political movement for independent India was rooted in the freedom from the colonial rule. However, a few visionaries preferred to dream India free from social oppressions but it hasn’t been achieved. Amol K Patil questions this un-kept promise and reflects on the regressive caste system through personal histories in his work. His practice is informed by the ‘the Dalit movements of consciousness’, particularly of the Dalit Panthers. Through familial links of his father being an active member of the Panthers, Patil reinterprets the Panther archive while addressing subjects related to ‘caste’ in performative and narrative ways. Patil’s family came from the tribe of folk performers. His grandfather – Gunaji Patil was a part of the oral traditions of the powada (bard-singing into performances) travelling across villages, singing paeans to Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s ideas and addressing the untouchability and ideas of social justice. Patil’s father loved theatre but he had to earn for living by working as a sanitation worker. He took to writing plays that dealt with the pains of migration, the lost jobs arising from the closing of the Bombay cotton mills. Amol addresses these complexities and folk traditions that his grandfather expressed through his powadas, folk-singing narration-performance tradition.
In his Sweep – walking performance, Amol enacts the orchestrated sweepers on the streets who are allotted lanes to clean at specific times in a day. The simultaneity of sweepers in their jobs looks like a performance viewed by the audiences from a distance, resembling a performer and the audience in the theatre. Coming from lower castes, these sweepers work within the stagnating systems of toxicity and discrimination. Amol in his work inverts it through his personal narration and questions the stagnant structures of social hierarchy. Sweep – walking is one such indiscreet performative work, along with his sculptural representations. During a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Amol collected the dust from the museum floor where he was installing. He covered objects found at the Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris in the black dust, thus taking away their value of history and materiality. Sumesh observes, “The collection of detritus, once his family vocation, now became an act of conceptual practice.”
In the archive of discarded objects, each remnant reveals a lineage of its own though the historical value and materiality may get redundant over the time. But, the objects of belonging may still be encrypted within their symbolism and functionality creating multiple connotations over the time, and, at some point, becoming a trail of living memory as a part of the life lived. Amol raises the question of how does one impart memories with these objects. The shedding of the now, mundane obsolete discards is handed over to the invisible other mechanical force which has no identities. They are the carriers of the inheritance of the detritus living a life in oblivion just like the objects subjected to disintegration and oblivion. The lost identities of this faceless force share space with the lost identities of these once-cherished objects of the everyday. They now fragment to dust with time within their arms of the invisible other. They play an integral role to help subjugate the loss of the importance of the objects once held and the precious moments lived with them.
Unfortunately, Indian art has broadly been ignorant of caste in its ways of expression. Discourses on ‘identity’ and ‘gender’ have been heavily explored in the Indian art scene, but issues relating to ‘caste’ were often suppressed, with an exception of Savi Savarkar, the first artist in independent India to address the issues of unsociability and the unequal social order. Against this background, the three ‘neo’ contemporary existentialist artists at Clark House Initiative are unique in the ways they are upfront in their explorations. They bring in the idea of revolt through their work that may result in rupture. The revolt in the work of Kamble, Kumari and Patil is palpable through their visual and performative expressions: the very act of performing itself is a revolt in itself, and the ‘rupture’ indicates an artistic intervention disrupting the vocabulary of contemporary art. The path chosen by the artists may not bring consensus. It need not have to. But it will definitely bring rupture within the prevalent system and existing artistic practices.
[i] ‘The concept of ‘paradigm shift’, postulated by Thomas Kuhn (1962) in the history of science, provides a useful tool for the study of cultural change through adaptation. As Kuhn seeks to demonstrate, knowledge develops in a succession of tradition-bound periods, punctuated by revolutionary breaks. These shifts occur when a system breaks down, or when anomalies in one paradigm force new paradigms to emerge. New paradigms function by challenging the norms of a given practice that had become constricting and thus vulnerable to challenge. The new paradigm in its turn marginalizes practices that no longer conform to the new criteria.’ (Quoted in Partha Mitter, Decentring Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery, Modern Global Arts and Its Discontents, 2008, pg.44, Published by: College Art Associations.)
[iii] For details: http://clarkhouseinitiative.org/
[iv] 7, Sujata Gilda (2017) ants among elephants, Noida, India, Harper Collins.
[v]Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd – The nexus of Casteism and Capitalism network is spoken by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd in his book Post- Hindu India. Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.
- Ambedkar, B.R. (1946) Who were the Shudras? India: Thacker and co. Ltd.
- Ambedkar, B.R. (1936) Annihilation of Caste (Speech).
- Bartholomew, Richard (2012) The Art Critic, Noida, India, BART
- Gilda, Sujata (2017) ants among elephants, Noida, India, Harper Collins.
- Mitter, Partha (2008) Decentring Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery, Modern Global Arts and Its Discontents, College Art Associations.
- Shepherd K.(1996) Why I am Not a Hindu. Calcutta, India: Samya.
- Shepherd K.(2009) Post Hindu – India. California: SAGE .
- Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others: Penguin Books, USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Sincere thanks for all the support and belief in my research:
Abhay Sardesai, Sumesh Sharma, Zasha Colah, Parul Dave Mukherjee, Ashutosh Potdar, Noopur Desai, The Clark House artists team, Prabhakar Kamble, and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Image Credits: Prabhakar Kamble, Amol Patil, Ranjeeta Kumari, and Clark House Initiative, Mumbai.